Four Important Things (Continued)
Death, judgment, heaven, and hell are often called the four last things. They are not called the four last things because they are the last or least likely things we reflect upon in life. They are called the four last things because they represent the final things that happen to us in this life: we all die, we are all judged by God, and as a result some are judged worthy of heaven while some are judged worthy of hell.
Although they do not get their name for this reason, it is almost a certainty that death, judgment, heaven, and hell are truly the last things many of us want to think about. ‘Last’ in this sense means that we would rather think about almost any other topic than these. We would rather think of doing the laundry, changing the oil, visiting the dentist, cleaning the gutters, having a colonoscopy, doing the taxes, cleaning the oven, and so forth than to ponder these subjects. For some people, ‘last’ will mean that their deaths will force the issue, that death will bring about the unavoidable truths of these realities whether they like it or not.
Since we don’t understand eternity – timelessness as opposed to the passage of a very long period of time – heaven and hell do not occupy much of our thoughts. Being optimists, or being presumptuous, we kinda think vaguely of going to heaven, but these thoughts typically come about when someone we know dies. Of the four last things it is death that more than likely disturbs us most, not only because it is much more tangible than the other three last things, but also because we have a greater natural fear of death than just about anything else except for perhaps suffering, especially protracted suffering. We might also deeply dread the prospects of dying in a certain way, such as dying by drowning, dying by fire, dying in our sleep, dying suddenly, dying after having lost the use of our minds, dying after having lost the use of our bodies, dying alone, etc.
As Christians, however, we really should not fear death as much as we do. Jesus conquered death, robbing it completely of its power. Indeed, thanks to Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection we should be able to say along with St Paul “O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?” (1Cor 15:55). Death no longer means an end but now represents a beginning. Understanding through faith that death leads to the possibility of everlasting life in heaven should tame our natural fear of death, knowing that death brings us into the presence of Jesus should make death far more palatable that it typically is for most people.
In any case, what exactly is death? Medical science would say that death occurs when the signs of life cease. Cessation of breathing was once considered the measure of death. Later, the absence of a heartbeat was evidence of death. Since both breathing and the heart can stop for a period of time without the certainty of death, brain activity is the most recent means of determining whether or not death has occurred. Spiritually speaking, however, death occurs when the immortal soul leaves the mortal body, when the body is no longer animated by the soul. This cannot be measured directly, but breathing, the heartbeat, and brain activity are all measures of life and their absence is therefore a measure that death has occurred.
But if we understand that death is the separation of the soul from the body, if we understand that we are not merely our bodies but that our bodies are merely part of us, if we understand that our bodies are mortal but our souls are immortal, if we understand that our bodies can be destroyed but our souls are indestructible, and if we understand that it is not our bodies but our souls that carry our personhood and our identities, then dying united with Christ should not be a source of dread and foreboding. We naturally fear death because it seems like the end, it seems utterly permanent, but it is the permanent end only to our earthly bodies but not to us as persons or us as individuals.
As Christians, it is key to understand these realities and to recognize that our knowledge and our faith must overcome our natural fear of death. It is also essential to understand death in a proper spiritual way because we will struggle to understand life and the meaning of life unless we understand death itself. Knowing that death is the end of our earthly lives but not the end of us individual persons and knowing that the judgment of our lives immediately follows death should lead us an understanding of how we ought to live in this life.